SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY - As with idle hands, little good comes from idling cars

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As the cost of gasoline continues to creep up and we look to improve our gas mileage as well as protect the environment, it's worthwhile to evaluate our driving behavior when it comes to idling our engines.

Each day, Americans waste approximately 3.8 million gallons of gasoline by idling their cars. Unfortunately, an idling engine produces twice the amount of exhaust emissions as an engine in motion.

Particulate matter, dirt, nitrous oxide, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are released into the air from exhaust. These gases and compounds have been found to be related to asthma, allergies and cancer. Carbon dioxide is a major cause of increasing climate change, which is bringing major problems worldwide.

Some of our idling habits are based on mistaken assumptions. I'd like to debunk some myths about the idling of engines, using facts gathered from numerous governmental and private sector websites.

First of all, it isn't true that shutting off and restarting your vehicle is hard on the engine and uses more fuel. The wear and tear caused by restarting has been estimated to add about $10 a year to the cost of driving -- money you will likely recover several times over in fuel savings by not idling.

Every two minutes a car is idling uses about the same amount of fuel as going one mile. At today's prices, idling for just 5 minutes a day in a car that gets 25 miles per gallon will cost you well over $100 for the year. That's 2.5 miles per day translating to 36.5 gallons a year at $3.19 a gallon for $116 total.

Think back on a typical day in Walla Walla: how many minutes did you spend at the drive-in bank, in the drive-through latte stand, or waiting to pick up your kids...? Five minutes goes by quickly.

Second, idling is not an effective way to warm up your vehicle, even in cold weather. Today's modern engines need only about 30 seconds of idling, and then you should drive off slowly. Idling warms only the engine; driving also warms the wheel bearings, suspension, transmission and tires.

Third, idling is not "good for your engine." Your engine is not operating at its peak temperature when it is idling, and therefore the fuel is only partially burned. This leads to contamination of the engine oil and to build-up of fuel residues on cylinder walls that can damage your engine and increase fuel consumption.

In addition to idling due to misconceptions, people idle their cars for comfort reasons, such as warming the car interior on a cold morning. We have to decide for ourselves what our comfort tolerance is relative to the environmental and economic impact of idling.

However because of its impacts, more and more local, regional and state governments are adopting anti-idling rules. Also, numerous groups around the nation and Canada are working to inform the public just how detrimental to the environment idling is, hoping people will reconsider habits if they are informed, and will then reduce idling voluntarily.

It is recommended that if you are going to idle a gasoline vehicle for more than 10 seconds, you should shut off the engine (except in traffic). Time your next transaction at a drive-through window; you'll be surprised how quickly 10 seconds goes by!

Out of curiosity, I rode my bicycle around Walla Walla and counted drive-through windows. I found 52; there may be one or two that I missed. Fast food accounts for almost half of the windows; there are four drive-through pharmacies and 10 coffee stands. Thirteen banks in town have drive-through windows, and several of those have more than one lane.

Add these to the city's dozen-odd schools, where parents idle their vehicles waiting to pick up their kids, and you can see there is tremendous opportunity for conservation and cleaner air.

I am confident technology will afford us greener means of transportation in the future, but, for now, we can reduce our carbon footprint by simply using less fossil fuel. So, save money, reduce wear on your engine, and save the environment by limiting the idling of your vehicle.

And remember, the most fuel-inefficient vehicle on the road is an idling one -- it gets zero miles per gallon!

Linda Herbert is a founding member of Sustainable Walla Walla, and is a registered nurse.

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